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Private: A study of Nicole Miller, The Conductor
Private: A study of Nicole Miller, The Conductor
Nour Acogny

February 16, 2017

Nicole Miller, a Tucson, Arizona-born female artist released a seven-minute silent video in 2009 entitled The Conductor, a video documenting “individuals making a decision about how to represent themselves.” This piece was her very first solo exhibition, at LAXART.

Nicole Miller was born in 1982. Belonging to the ‘Millennial generation’, she grew up during the ‘digital explosion’, and maybe this can help us understand her decision to use an electronic art form for her project.

Simply by seeing images extracted from her video, you can get a sense of the preconceptions and bias people may have of the man portrayed. The man is seen jerking his head, seemingly undergoing body spasms and manic-like episodes, from states of extreme joy to extreme anger and/or pain. And the first impression the video usually makes is that of a mentally ill man undergoing a manic attack.

His clothes (from the waist up) are quite casual; he is not at all dressed the way one would assume an orchestral conductor would dress. He is seen wearing a blazer and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. The background he is set against is robbed of all signs that an orchestral concert is in motion – hence truly masking his true identity as a conductor to the audience; it is a nonspecific background of gold, burnt orange and white psychedelic bursts.

The video in itself is an intense experience, touching on a multitude of subjects. One interpretation that can be given is that the conductor invites the viewer into his own mind, reducing the sound of the orchestra to white noise, delving into experiences of euphoria, melancholy and perhaps anger at times. The background seems the external portrayal of the semiotic values in his body and face: mayhem yet complete control. This also seems to be a metaphor for the orchestra he is conducting, as each movement in itself is somewhat different, thus creating chaos, yet when they all come together as one, it creates a harmonious symphony. Arguably, this analysis can also extend to a metaphor for society: the conflicts between contrasting members of society create a sense of widespread tumult, yet once they come together and try to understand one another, the chaos diminishes. Furthermore, the fact that Jimi Hendrix, a famous black musician, is on the character’s t-shirt extends the musicality of the silent piece. His Afro hairstyle is a piece of cultural iconography as well as a throwback to when the hairstyle was a sign of resistance from oppression (cf. Angela Davis in the 1970s).

The choice of the video’s length as well as its silent-format is intentional. The fact there is no music in the video enables the audience to interpret and truly imagine the meaning of this piece of art that is presented to them, without being influenced by context or sound.

The length of the video also suggests a powerful significance. “Seven” in the book of Revelation is the foundation of God’s word. It is the search and longing for “Truth”, and encourages one to look for the reality hidden behind illusions. And this, it seems to me, is representative of the audience’s task in this piece.

The biased reaction people may first have to this unusual video echoes the marginalization of certain people from society because of their difference.

This may be expressed as a difference in social status, an ethnic dissimilarity, a mental health disorder, or even simply someone who seems to be on drugs.

In this video, the character is a combination of several of these things.

Eric Ruff is the actor featured in the video. Miller had him study the facial expressions of multiple orchestral conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, to create what she artfully calls a “facial ballet”.

Ruff combined the facial expressions he learned with a personal touch, thus achieving the result displayed in her piece.

In an interview, Miller explains that she chose a conductor because she was fascinated by the idea of an artist conveying information about the score he knows so well to his audience. “The conductor is literally taking a score and acting as a transmitter of that information to an audience […] it is a literal translation of written score to facial expressions and gestures.”

In fact, art has, for many centuries, served as a means of educating people, namely the illiterate population, as well as a means of transporting its audience to a different place, and this silent form of communication about complex and important issues reaches its goal.

Finally, referring to an exhibition entitled ‘Psychosomatic Acid Test’, in which The Conductor was first featured, Miller describes the exhibition’s name as “ A trip that one wills upon oneself”. She adds, “I could understand Eric’s performance in this way.”

This is truly fitting to her piece. Indeed a conductor is usually in a liminal state of being in his own world, caught in his own thoughts, while in a constant interaction with his audience and orchestra. He is completely engulfed in his music and often in such an extravagant state that he seems to be having a psychedelic experience – just as the protagonist of her video.

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